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October 29, 1998 2:00 AM
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Benigni Opens Overcrowded AFI Fest

Benigni Opens Overcrowded AFI Fest

by Rebecca Sonnenshine




The 12th annual AFI International Film Festival kicked off on Thursday
night with a glitzy, star-studded U.S. premiere of Roberto Benigni's
"Life is Beautiful." Held at Mann's Chinese Theater in downtown
Hollywood, the night got off to a shaky start when crowds exceeded the
organizers' expectations, overfilling the 1500-seat theater. "Usually,
there is a 15-20% drop-out rate," festival director Jon Fitzgerald
explained apologetically to a fidgeting audience. "Tonight, we had less
than 5%."


It was true: the ever-casual, often cynical LA audience had turned out
in force on this mild October evening -- and dressed to the nines, no
less. Luckily, the AFI staff managed to rustle up another print and
ushered the overflow into an adjacent theater, which they also filled to
capacity. As to be expected, the audience was laden with industry
types. Miramax staffers, in particular, circulated anxiously, watching
for audience reaction to their prestigious Cannes pick-up ("Life is
Beautiful" opened in New York and Los Angeles over the weekend to
encouraging numbers).


After the screening, audience reaction was politely enthusiastic, and
Roberto Benigni graciously accepted compliments as he slowly made his
way out of the theater. Still, Miramax has their work cut out for them.
There has been so much hype about "Life is Beautiful" that it's nearly
impossible to watch without some preconceived notions. While it
undoubtedly is a unique cinematic experience, the film -- half slapstick
comedy, half grim drama -- will probably confound U.S. audiences, who
prefer their genres more clearly defined. Reviews have been mixed, but
everyone admits that the film has certain charms: it may not be
particularly realistic or cohesive, but it is heartfelt and magical.


The regular festival screenings began on Friday, enticing more than a
few curious festival go-ers to ditch work for the afternoon. As in past
years, the AFI film festival has scheduled a slate of interesting, if
sometimes obscure, foreign films and U.S. indies. The Official
Competition features eleven films from around the globe: "The Big Mambo"
(Germany); "The Book of Great Wishes" (Poland); "Fire Eater" (Finland);
"The Last Contract" (Sweden); "Mr. Zhao" (China); "The Other Conquest"
(Mexico); "Samurai Fiction" (Japan); "Sekal Has To Die" (Czech
Republic); "Sweety Barrett" (UK); "The Swindle" (France); and
"Woundings" (UK).


The New Directions section offers a slate of US independent films, while
the European Film Showcase provides a venue for emerging European
directors to show their work. A more sure bet for audiences is probably
the World Cinema section, a non-competitive arena featuring twelve
titles from around the world, including Nadia Tass' new film, "Amy,"
Erick Zonca's Cannes sensation, "The Dreamlife of Angels," and Stefan
Ruzowitzky's "The Inheritors," which Stratosphere Entertainment will put
into limited release this Friday.


A slim offering of documentary films is also screening, as well as a
smattering of short films. An eclectic collection of Special
Presentations rounds out the screenings, ranging from the charming
("Waking Ned Devine," "God Said, Ha!") to the excruciatingly mediocre
("Zacharia Farted," "Meeting Daddy").


The festival is also offering a number of panels and events designed to
bring members of the film community together. The Screenwriter's
Weekend, which wrapped on Sunday evening, featured a host of
well-established screenwriters discussing their craft and the industry
in general. Borders Books is hosting a slew of book signing events: AFI
is bringing out some impressive classics ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,"
"Battleship Potemkin"), and a tribute to the great Donald Sutherland is
scheduled for Tuesday evening.


As always in Los Angeles, finding a festival "hub" is a challenge, but
the organizers have set up a cozy "hospitality tent" near the Laemmle
4-Plex in Santa Monica, where the New Directions and European Showcase
films are screening. Nestled near the Third Street Promenade -- which
means convenient parking, an abundance of coffee houses, and plenty of
places to grab a snack -- the theater is a perfect place for a festival
and has therefore resulted in healthy attendance.


Unfortunately, the films in the Official Competition all screen at
Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, a difficult venue, at best, with
limited parking, heavy traffic, and swarms of tourists taking pictures
of the cement. And the World Cinema films have been exiled to the Music
Hall in Beverly Hills, a perfectly nice, but rather isolated, theater on
Wilshire Boulevard. The distance between the venues doesn't create a
problem for casual attendees, but is inconvenient for all but the most
dedicated patron.


The AFI festival runs through Saturday, October 31. The Closing Night
Gala at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will feature an awards
ceremony, followed by a screening of Pat O'Connor's "Dancing at
Lughnasa
." Tickets are available by calling (213) 520-2000.


[You can check out the comprehensive AFI Festival website at
afifest.com]


[Rebecca Sonnenshine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles]

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